Welcome to the 2016 NFL regular season.
The Green Bay Packers begin their march to Super Bowl LI in Houston with a trip down to Florida to face the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville and Green Bay are unfamiliar opponents, having only played each other five times since the Jaguars entered the league in 1995. The Packers currently hold a 3-2 advantage in the series.
This will be the first time Green Bay has played in Jacksonville since 2008 and it’s also the first time the Packers will see Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles as well as their head coach Gus Bradley.
Unfamiliarity is the name of the game Sunday, but here are five things to watch as the Packers kick off their 2016 campaign.
1. Lane Taylor
About 95% of the discussion regarding the Packers the past week has been about the release of three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton and his replacement, Lane Taylor.
Taylor unfortunately gets a bit of a baptism by fire as he lines up against Malik Jackson, the powerful defensive tackle the Jaguars signed away from the Denver Broncos in the offseason. Jackson leads a rebuilt Jaguars defense that makes the Jaguars one of the potential sleeper teams this season. Packers coach Mike McCarthy seems to have all the faith in Taylor and stopping Jackson in Week 1 is good way to start rewarding that faith.
2. Jordy Nelson
Aside from the departure of Sitton and the elevation of Taylor, the other big story coming out of Green Bay is the return of All-Pro wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Nelson didn’t start practicing until late in training camp and missed all four of the team’s exhibition games.
Fans will be watching closely to see if he and Aaron Rodgers quickly reestablish the chemistry that made them the most lethal quarterback/wide receiver tandem in the NFL In 2014. Keep an eye out for that first successful back shoulder completion, a staple of the game between Rodgers and Nelson.
Many wrote off the Packers’ offensive struggles last year to the absence of Nelson and if the offense struggles out of the gate, it will be interesting to see how the team reacts. A quick start is critical for both Nelson and the offense to prove they are back and that 2015 was an aberration.
3. Blake Bortles vs the Green Bay secondary
If there is one thing Dom Capers’ defenses consistently excel at, it’s generating turnovers. They could be starting their 2016 season off with a feast if Blake Bortles’ 2015 season is any indication.
Bortles is on the cusp of having a breakout season, save for one problem many young quarterbacks have: throwing interceptions. He has very much been a boom or bust player his first two years in the league, but he showed some growth last season. He threw 35 touchdowns but also had 18 interceptions, one more than the 17 picks he had as a rookie in 2014.
Green Bay’s secondary has turned into one of the best ball hawking units in the league. Sam Shields brings veteran presence to the unit while all eyes are on Damarious Randall to build off his fantastic rookie year where he caught three interceptions including one for a touchdown. Morgan Burnett is one of the best strong safeties in the league and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is on the cusp of becoming an elite safety in his own right.
Bortles in his first two years had a nasty habit of forcing the football. Has he learned to make smarter decisions? The test against the Green Bay defense will speak volumes.
4. Packers vs the weather
It’s going to be a hot one Sunday, with the air temperature at kickoff right around 90 degrees with the humidity ranging anywhere from 50-60%.
The Packers don’t play many games in these kinds of conditions and it’s the first time they have opened the season in Florida since 1996. Conditioning will be key to helping avoid cramps in the warm noon sun. Look for a lot of sub packages on defense for Green Bay, especially with a thin defensive to line, to keep guys fresh.
5. Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan
The Packers somewhat surprisingly only kept three inside linebackers on the initial 53-man roster, cutting Sam Barrington and trading free agent signing Lerentee McCray to the Buffalo Bills.
That means it will be Blake Martinez, the fourth round draft pick from Stanford, lining up next to Jake Ryan in Green Bay’s base 3-4 defense. McCarthy was also adamant that Clay Matthews will be lining up as an outside linebacker to fully utilize his skills as a pass rusher. That leaves only Joe Thomas backing up both Ryan and Martinez.
How will the Packers execute this? Will they be in nickel more than they will in base? Could they be on occasion showing a hybrid/4-3 front?
Better yet, how will this young, raw tandem fare? Inside linebacker has long been a weak spot for the Packers on defense and while both have shown flashes, Martinez is a rookie and Ryan saw limited time as a rookie last year.
These are questions that flew under the radar thanks to the Sitton release, but it will be interesting to see how the Packers line up defensively against the Jaguars.
Packers 28, Jaguars 14
Green Bay gets off to an early lead as Rodgers and Nelson display a glimpse of their old magic. Taylor struggles a bit at guard, giving up a sack. Overall, a solid effort for the Packers as they start the season 1-0.